I often have trouble discussing my observations of social justice themes in various entertainment media with people. Usually I find that people take issue with my wanting to look further into a topic that they are enjoying, and if I criticize or attempt to dissect it, I must be attacking their hobby or even them personally for enjoying something because I find fault in that particular movie, TV show, or game. "It's just a game!" they tell me. I should just enjoy the fun, the beauty of the animation, the mechanics, the story, etc. It's not real! Believe me, I do enjoy all of these things. And that doesn't mean that I am incapable of simultaneously enjoying something and dissecting various faults with it. I call it the Bobby Fischer Effect: Enjoying something of beauty which is shadowed by something deeply flawed with the ability to separate the two. Popular culture is often dismissed as fluffy entertainment that should be consumed and not thought about. I know that I am not the only person who has driven this point home to you, after all, you probably would not be reading here if you didn't at least partially agree with that point. But the real point of my, erm, point, is that there is a symbiosis between popular culture and society at large. Pop culture is derived in part from trends, and trends in society are driven in part by popular culture Which is why I just can not abide empty excuses like 'it's just a game" when I see games that just carry so much baggage. There are many games that, while possibly not maliciously designed to emulate problems existing in the real world today, fail to take into account the history of the situations they sell as entertainment. A couple of years ago MySpace and Facebook drove a popular application called "Friends For Sale", and the first time I saw my profile picture pop up on someone's feed, specifically that of an old boyfriend, who proudly announced how he "owned me" "just like the old days" and that he had bought me for $840, I was outraged. Apparently this game was incredibly popular, and I just wasn't seeing the fun while I was being bought and sold without being asked. You could buy and sell your friends at will, and make them do things, and buy them gifts if you wanted. The similarities to human trafficking were not lost on me. Resident Evil 5 brought up all kinds of questions about depictions of things that ought to be addressed with research before sending that stuff to development when they launched a game set in a fantasy-based African area (non-specified by authenticity or common sense). Enter white guy with his technology, killing African zombies by the dozens. A zombie outbreak ravaging African people à la the HIV/AIDS epidemic with a white dude decimating their numbers as if they are all just worthless. But even before this happens, we have lots of great throwback racist imagery with African people acting all savage! And kicking something in a sack! And dragging off a nice white blond woman who turns up infected! None of this has any apparent bearing on the tenuous story line, so Capcom's decision to toss it in there is questionable at best.
Red Dead Redemption had some of the most beautiful game play mechanics I've ever seen, and definitely the easiest horse-riding interface I've encountered, but Rockstar seemed to go to absurd lengths to ignore the multi-faceted racial issues in their throwback Revisionist Western-style setting. Set on the Mexican border, the game is absent of any black people (who would have been newly "freed"), Chinese people (who worked in brutal conditions on railroads), and most Native Americans (unless you were at a poker table, thereby avoiding any chance of having to confront the uncomfortable racial issues of the area for the era, and actually creating some more, problematic ones). I am, for the record, exceptionally hard on games (and other media, for that matter) because I enjoy them. I don't frequently spend mountains of words dissecting layers of oppression or devoting hours of time playing games I hate (though, I won't ignore them). I prefer to spend time critiquing games I rather like (which is why I won't spend a lot of time talking about Street Fighter or most JRPGs). I want games to be better than this because I want to play better games. Decent enough gameplay with careless concept is not good enough for me, and I think that it shouldn't be good enough for other gamers, either.
Games give gamers an outlet, surely, and there has long been debate over what that outlet really is. I am of the camp that games don't make gamers evil or violent, but that doesn't give designers and developers a pass to ignore history and social issues when churning out games. From board games and pencil and paper role play to MMORPGs, (even my CosPlay and LARP-ing peeps out there!) games give us escape. But it is entirely too dismissive of reality to suggest that the material in them doesn't have an effect on the way we view or consume popular culture, and by extension, our culture as a whole. Photo via Brothersoft